The Life of St. Mary of Egypt

While Zosimas was chanting psalms and looking up to heaven with an alert eye, he saw the shadowy illusion of a human body appear to the right of where he was standing and performing the prayers of the sixth hour. At first he was alarmed, suspecting that he was seeing a demonic phantom, and he shivered with fear. But after he had made the sign of the cross and shaken off his fear (for his prayer had ended), he looked again and saw that in fact someone was walking in a southward direction. What he saw was a naked figure whose body was black, as if tanned by the scorching of the sun. It had on its head hair white as wool, and even this was sparse as it did not reach below the neck of its body. When Zosimas saw this, he was inspired with pleasure and, filled with joy at that incredible sight, began to run in the direction that this creature he saw was heading. He rejoiced with joy unspeakable, for all those days of his desert sojourn he had never seen the shape or shadow of any kind of human being or of any animal, be it winged or terrestrial. So he sought to find out who this creature was and of what sort, hoping that he would become the observer or witness of some great marvel.

But as soon as that creature saw Zosimas coming from afar, it began to flee and run toward the innermost part of the desert. And Zosimas, as if unmindful of his old age and with no thought for his fatigue from his journey, hastened and exerted himself to overtake the creature that was running away from him. Thus he was pursuing, while the creature was being pursued. But Zosimas’ pace was quicker, and little by little he drew nearer to the fleeing figure. When he had approached close enough that his voice could be heard, Zosimas started calling out these words tearfully, “Why are you running away from this old and sinful man? O servant of the true God, wait up for me whoever you are, in the name of God, for Whose sake you dwell in this desert. Wait for me, weak and unworthy as I am , for the sake of the hope that you expect as a reward for these toils of yours. Stop and give to an old man your blessing and benediction, for God never abhors anyone.” Zosimas said this with tears in his eyes, while both were running toward a place where a dry stream bed had left its traces. I do not think that a torrent ever existed there (for how could a torrent appear in that land?), but the place happened to have such a setting.

When they reached the aforementioned place, the fleeing creature descended into the stream bed and climbed up again on the other bank, while Zosimas, who was exhausted and unable to run any further, stood on the opposite bank of the apparent stream bed, and shed tears upon tears and uttered lamentation upon lamentation, so that his wailing could be heard by anyone in his vicinity. Then that fleeing creature cried out, “Father Zosimas, forgive me in the name of the Lord; I cannot turn toward you and be seen by you face to face, for as you see I am a woman and I am naked, and I am ashamed to have my body uncovered. But if you are really willing to grant one favor to a sinful woman, throw me the garment that you are wearing, so that with it I may cover my feminine weakness and turn toward you and receive your blessing.” Shivering fear and astonishment overwhelmed Zosimas, as he told us, when he heard her calling him “Zosimas” by name; for as the man was sharp in mind and most wise in divine matters, he decided that she could not have called by name a man whom she had never seen or heard about, unless she was clearly blessed with the gift of foresight.

So he quickly did her bidding and, removing the old and torn cloak which he was wearing, threw it to her while he stood with eyes averted. She took it and covered certain parts of her body that ought to be covered more than others. Then she turned to Zosimas and said to him, “Why, Father Zosimas, did you decide to look at a sinful woman? What did you wish to learn from me or see, so that you did not hesitate to put yourself to such trouble?” Zosimas knelt on the ground and asked to receive her blessing, according to the custom, while she insisted on doing obeisance to him. Both remained on the ground, each one asking the blessing of the other. No other word could be heard from either of them, except “Give me your blessing.” After a long time had passed, the woman said to Zosimas: “Father Zosimas, it is fitting for you to give a blessing and prayer, for you have been honored with the rank of priest and you have served at the holy altar for many years and have often performed the sacrament of the holy gifts of eucharist.” Those words cast Zosimas into greater fear and anxiety, and the monk became terrified and bathed in sweat, sighed, and was unable to speak clearly. He said to her with gasping and rapid breath, “It is clear from your appearance, O spiritual mother, that you have long ago departed toward God, and have in great part mortified yourself to the world. Also apparent to me is the grace that has been granted to you by God , from the fact that you called me by name and addressed me as priest, although you have never seen me before. But since grace is manifested not by official rank, but is usually indicated by spiritual attitudes, you should bless me for the sake of the Lord and pray for one who needs your help.”

Finally, yielding to the monk’s persistence, the woman said, “Blessed be God, Who is concerned for the salvation of men and their souls.” Then Zosimas said “Amen,” and they both arose from their kneeling position. The woman said to the monk, “Why did you come to see a sinful woman? Why did you wish to see a woman who is deprived of every virtue? But since the grace of the Holy Spirit surely guided you to me that you might render a service appropriate to my old age, tell me, how do the Christian people fare these days? How fare the kings? How are the affairs of the Church managed?” Zosimas said to her, “Briefly, revered mother, thanks to your holy prayers, Christ has granted stable peace to all. Yet accept the unworthy request of an old man, and pray for the whole world and for me the sinner, so that my sojourn in this desert may not prove fruitless.” She answered him, “It is you, Father Zosimas, who hold the office of priest, as I have said, who ought to pray for me and for everyone. For you were appointed to do this. However, since we are commanded to be obedient, I shall willingly do your bidding.”

After she spoke those words, she turned toward the east and, raising her eyes on high and stretching out her hands, started to pray in a soft whisper. Her voice was not heard to utter articulate sounds, and for this reason Zosimas was unable to take note of the words of the prayer. He remained standing, as he told us , trembling from fear, and bowed down toward the ground without uttering a single word. He swore to us , calling upon God as the witness of his words, that when he saw that she was prolonging her prayers, he raised his head up a bit from the ground and saw her elevated about one cubit above the earth, hanging in the air and praying in this way. When he saw this, he was even more terrified and in great torment, not daring to utter a word, except to repeat to himself for a long time, “Lord, have mercy.” While he was lying on the ground, the monk was tormented by the thought that perhaps she was a demonic spirit who was only pretending to pray. But the woman turned toward him, and raised up the monk, saying, “Why, O father, do these thoughts about me disturb and torment you, that I am a demonic spirit and that I pretend to pray? Be assured, my good man, that I am a sinful woman, but I am protected by holy baptism. I am not a spirit, but altogether earth and ashes and flesh,” meaning that she was in no way a spirit. While she was speaking, she made the sign of the cross on her forehead, eyes, lips, and breast, saying thus, “Let God lead us away from the devil and his snares, Father Zosimas, for his power against us is great.”

When the monk heard those words and saw those gestures, he threw himself on the ground and clasped her feet, saying tearfully, “I implore you in the name of Christ our God, Who was born of the Virgin, for Whose sake you wear this nakedness, for Whose sake you have worn out this flesh of yours in this way, do not conceal anything from your servant, who you are and where you came from and when and in what way you came to dwell in this desert. Do not conceal from me any detail of your life, but tell me everything so that you may make manifest the wonders of God. For, as it has been written, Wisdom that is hid and treasure that is hoarded up, what profit is in them both? Tell me everything in the name of the Lord, for you shall speak not to boast or show off, but to give assurance to me, a sinful and unworthy man. For I believe that God, in Whom you live and serve, led me into this desert for this reason, so that the Lord might make your life manifest. For it is not in our power to oppose God’s judgments. Indeed, if it were not pleasing to Christ, our God, that you and your struggles become known, He would not have permitted anyone to lay eyes on you, nor would He have given the strength to accomplish such a long journey to me who never intended to or was able to leave my cell.”

When Father Zosimas said these words and many more, the woman raised him up and said to him, “I am ashamed, my father, to describe for you my shameful actions. Forgive me in the name of the Lord. But since you have seen my bare body, I shall lay bare to you also my deeds, so that you may know with what great shame and humiliation my soul is filled. For the reason I did not wish to describe my life was not because I did not want to boast, as you suspected. For how could I possibly boast, since I had become the instrument of the devil? And I know that when I start telling you the story of my life, you will avoid me, as one avoids a snake, for you could not bear to hear the outrageous things that I have done. However, I shall speak without concealing anything. But before I do so, I ask you to swear that you will not stop praying for me that I may find mercy in the hour of judgment.” So, while the monk shed copious tears, the woman started the narration of her life with the following words:

“My homeland, dear brother, was Egypt. When my parents were still alive and I was twelve years old, I rejected my love for them and went to Alexandria. I am ashamed to think about how I first destroyed my own virginity, and how I then threw myself entirely and insatiably into the lust of sexual intercourse. But now I feel it is more decent for me to speak openly what I shall briefly describe, so that you may become aware of my lust and love of pleasure. For more than seventeen years—please forgive me—I was a public temptation to licentiousness, not for payment, I swear, since I did not accept anything although men often wished to pay me. I simply contrived this so that I could seduce many more men, thus turning my lust into a free gift. You should not think that I did not accept payment because I was rich, for I lived by begging and often by spinning coarse flax fibers. The truth is that I had an insatiable passion and uncontrollable lust to wallow in filth. This was and was considered to be my life, to insult nature with my lust.

“So, while I was living in this way, one summer day I saw a huge crowd of Libyan and Egyptian men running toward the sea. I asked someone who happened to be next to me, ‘Where are these men running?,’ and he answered, ‘Everybody is going to Jerusalem for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which as usual takes place in a few days.’ Then I said to him, ‘Would they take me with them, if I wanted to go along?’ He replied, ‘If you have the money for your passage and expenses, no one will prevent you.’ Then I said to him, ‘In fact, my brother, I have no money for passage or expenses. But I shall go and get on one of the boats they have hired, and they shall feed me whether they wish it or not, for they will accept my body in lieu of the passage money.’ I wanted to go away with them for this reason—forgive me, my father—so that I could have many lovers, ready to satisfy my lust. I warned you, Father Zosimas, do not force me to describe to you my disgrace. For Lord knows how I shudder to defile both you and the air with my words.”

Then Zosimas, while drenching the ground with his tears, answered her, “Speak, my mother, in the name of the Lord, speak and do not interrupt the flow of such a beneficial narration.” Then, resuming her tale, she added the following: “So, when that young man heard those shameful words, he went away laughing. As for me, I threw away the distaff I was holding—for it happened that I had it in my hands at the time—and ran toward the sea, where I saw the other people running. And I saw some young men standing at the seashore, about ten or more, vigorous in their bodies as well as in their movements, who seemed to me fit for what I sought (they were apparently awaiting their fellow passengers, while others had already embarked on the ships). I rushed shamelessly into their midst, as was my habit. ‘Take me where you are going,’ I said, ‘Surely you will not find me useless.’ Then, uttering other even more obscene words, I made everyone laugh, while they, seeing my penchant for shamelessness, took me and brought me to the boat they had prepared for the voyage. In the meantime, the men they were waiting for arrived, and we sailed from there.

“How can I possibly describe to you what followed, my dear man? What tongue can declare, or what ears can bear to hear what happened on the boat and during the journey that followed and the acts into which I forced those wretched men against their will? There is no kind of licentiousness, speakable or unspeakable, that I did not teach those miserable men. I am truly surprised, my father, how the sea endured my profligacy, and how the earth did not open its mouth to draw me alive down to Hades, as one who had ensnared so many souls! But, as it seemed, God sought my repentance, for He desires not the death of the sinner, but remains patient waiting for his conversion. In this way, therefore, and in such a haste we reached Jerusalem. And during the days that I stayed in the city before the feast, I engaged in the same practices or even worse. For I was not contented with the young men who were at my service at sea and on the road, but I also corrupted many other men, both citizens and foreigners, whom I picked up for this purpose.

“When the holy feast of the Exaltation of the Cross came, I was wandering around hunting after the souls of young men, as I did before. At early dawn I saw everybody hurrying to the church and off I went, running along with those who were running. So, I came with them to the courtyard of the church. When the time came for the divine Exaltation of the Cross , I tried to join the crowd and force my way to the entrance, pushing my way forward but being pushed back. Eventually, with great trouble and grief—wretched woman that I am—I approached the door through which one entered the church where the life-giving cross was displayed. But as soon as I stepped on the threshold of the door, all the other people entered unhindered, while some kind of divine power held me back, not allowing me to pass through the entrance of the church. Once more I was pushed back and forth, finding myself again standing alone in the courtyard. I assumed that this was happening because of my womanly weakness. So I mingled with other people and pushed with all possible strength, shoving with my elbows and forcing myself inside. But I tried in vain, because again, from the moment my wretched foot stepped on the threshold, though the church received the others without any obstacle, it refused entrance to me alone, miserable woman that I am; and just as if a large company of soldiers were arrayed for this purpose, with orders to prevent my entering, so did some kind of overwhelming power hold me back and once more I was standing in the courtyard.

“After this happened three or four times, I became fatigued and no longer had the strength to push and be pushed back, for my body was exhausted as a result of my violent effort. So, I gave up and went back and stood at the corner of the courtyard of the church. Only then did I realize the cause which prevented me from laying eyes on the life-giving cross, for a salvific word touched the eyes of my heart, showing me that it was the filth of my actions that was barring the entrance to me. Then I began to cry, lamenting and beating my breast, raising sighs from the depths of my heart. As I was crying, I saw the icon of the all-holy Mother of God standing above the place where I stood. I looked straight at Her and said, ‘Virgin Lady, Thou Who didst give flesh to God the Word by birth, I know, I know well that it is neither decent, nor reasonable for me who is so filthy and utterly prodigal, to look upon Thy icon, Thou the ever-virginal, the chaste, Thou Who art pure and undefiled in body and soul. For it is right that I, the prodigal woman, should be hated and abhorred by Thou Who art pure. But since, as I heard, God to Whom Thou gavest birth became man for this reason, in order to summon sinners to repentance, help me, a lone woman who has no one to help her. Command that I, too, may be allowed to enter the church. Do not deprive me of the opportunity of seeing the cross on which God, to Whom Thou gavest birth, was crucified in the flesh and offered His own blood as a ransom for my sake. Command, my Lady, that the door may be opened also to me, that I may venerate the divine cross; and I name Thee before God, Who was born from Thee, as a worthy guarantor, that I shall no longer insult this flesh by any shameful intercourse whatsoever, but from the moment I look upon the wood of Thy Son’s cross, I shall immediately renounce the world and all worldly things, and I shall go wherever Thou shalt instruct and guide me, as the guarantor of my salvation.’

“As soon as I spoke these words I received the fire of faith just like some kind of assurance, and being encouraged by the compassion of the Mother of God, I moved from that place where I stood praying, and returned and joined those people who were entering the church. No longer did anyone push me this way and that, nor did anyone prevent me from approaching the door through which they entered the church. Indeed, I was filled with a shivering fear and astonishment, shaking and trembling all over. Then I reached the door that until then had been barred to me, as if all the force that previously held me back was now preparing the way for my entrance. In this way I entered the church without any effort. Thus I found myself inside the Holy of Holies, and I was deemed worthy to see the life-giving cross, and saw the mysteries of God and knew that He is always ready to accept our repentance. I threw myself to the ground—wretched woman that I was—and after I kissed that holy ground, I rushed out eagerly to Her [the Virgin], Who had stood as guarantor for me. So I came to that place where the bond of guarantee was signed and, kneeling in front of the ever-virgin Mother of God, I said the following words:

‘O my Lady, Thou Who lovest goodness hast shown me Thy love for mankind, for Thou didst not abhor the prayers of an unworthy woman. I saw the glory which we prodigal people rightly cannot see. Glory be to God, Who accepts through Thee the repentance of sinners. (For what else could I, a sinful woman, think or utter?) It is now time, my Lady, to fulfill what was agreed in Thy act of guarantee. Guide me now wherever Thou dost command. Be the teacher of my salvation and guide me toward the path which leads to repentance.’ While I was saying these words, I heard someone crying aloud from afar, ‘If you cross the river Jordan, you shall find a fine place of repose.’ When I heard this voice, believing that it was addressing me, I tearfully shouted and called out to the Mother of God, ‘Lady, Lady, do not abandon me.’ Having cried out these words, I came out of the courtyard of the church and hurried away.

“As I was leaving, someone who had seen me gave me three copper coins, saying, ‘Accept these, my revered mother.’ I took the coins that were given to me and I spent them to buy three loaves of bread that I took with me as a provision of blessing. I asked the man who sold me the bread, ‘Which is the way and direction, my good man, which leads to the river Jordan?’ When I learned which gate of the city leads out to that place, I passed through it at a run and began my journey filled with tears. Then I asked the way again and again, and went on walking for the rest of the day—I think it had been the third hour of the day when I saw the holy cross—and around sunset I arrived at the church of John the Baptist, which was very near the river Jordan. After I prayed in the church, I immediately walked down to the Jordan and washed my face and hands with its holy water. Then I partook of the undefiled and life-giving sacraments in the church of the Precursor [i.e., John the Baptist], ate half a loaf of bread, drank water from the Jordan, and spent the night lying on the ground. The next day I found a small boat there and crossed the river to the opposite bank. Once more, I asked my guide [i.e., the Virgin] to lead me wherever She pleased. So I came to this desert, and since then to this day I have fled afar off and lodged in this wilderness , waiting for my God Who delivers those who return to Him from distress of spirit and tempest.”

Then Zosimas said to her, “How many years have passed, my lady, since you have lodged in this wilderness?” The woman answered, “Forty-seven years have passed, I think, since I came out from the Holy City.” Zosimas said, “And what did you find or have for food, my lady?” The woman said, “I crossed the Jordan carrying two and a half loaves of bread, which little by little dried up and became hard as rock. In this way, I survived for years eating those loaves in small portions.” Then Zosimas asked, “And did you live in this way for so many years without distress and without being disturbed by the sudden change in your way of life?” The woman answered, “Now you ask me something, Father Zosimas, which I shudder even to speak about. For, if I recall now all those dangers I suffered patiently and those thoughts which terribly disturbed me, I am afraid they might strike me again.” Then Zosimas said, “Do not hold back, my lady, anything that you might tell me. Indeed I have asked you before to tell me everything without any omission.”

She said to him, “Believe me, revered father, for seventeen years I wandered in this desert struggling with those irrational desires, as if with wild beasts. Whenever I tried to take some food, I yearned for meat and fish that abound in Egypt. I longed to drink wine, which was constantly in my thoughts, for I used to drink a lot of wine when I was living in the world. But since I did not have even water to drink here, I was burning with terrible thirst and could not endure its deprivation. Also an irrational desire for lascivious songs entered my mind, always disturbing me profoundly and trying to seduce me into singing the demonic songs that I have learned. But immediately I would shed tears and beat my breast with my hand, and remind myself of the agreement I made when I came out to the desert. In my mind I would stand in front of the icon of the Mother of God, my guarantor, and I would weep before Her, asking Her to chase away those thoughts that assailed my miserable soul in this way. When I had shed enough tears and had beaten my breast as hard as I could, I used to see light shining everywhere around me. From that moment on, after that storm, I would feel constant tranquility deep inside me.

“How can I describe to you, revered father, those thoughts that were urging me again to fornication? Indeed, deep in my miserable heart a burning desire was kindled and set my whole being aflame and excited my desire for intercourse. Whenever such a thought came to my mind, I would at once throw myself to the ground and let my tears fall on the earth, imagining that She Who had acted as guarantor for me was present as my protector, and that since I was disobeying Her She was rightly inflicting punishment on me because of my trespasses. So I did not raise my eyes, but kept them cast down on the ground, even if it happened that I had to spend the whole day and night there, until that sweet light shone around me chasing away those thoughts that disturbed me. Therefore, I constantly raised the eyes of my mind toward my guarantor, seeking Her help for one who was in danger of drowning in the sea of the desert. And indeed She always helped and assisted me in my repentance. In this way seventeen years passed by, during which I encountered countless dangers. But from that day until now my helper [i.e., the Virgin] has stood by me and guided me through all hardships.”

Then Zosimas said to her, “Did you not need any food or clothes?” She answered him, “After I consumed those loaves of bread, as I said before, during those seventeen years, I then fed myself with wild plants and whatever else can be found in the desert. As for the cloak I wore when I crossed the Jordan, it was torn to pieces and wore out long ago. I have endured cold and again the flames of summer, scorching in the burning heat and freezing and shivering in the frost, so that many times I collapsed to the ground and remained there scarcely breathing or moving. The fact is that I have struggled against many and various calamities and unbearable temptations. But from that day until now the power of God has preserved my sinful soul and humble body in many ways. For in only thinking of those evils from which He rescued me, I receive as inexhaustible food the hope of my salvation, for I feed and cover myself with the word of God Who governs the universe. For man shall not live by bread alone, and because they had no shelter, those who have removed the covering of sin have embraced the rock.”

When Zosimas heard her citing verses of Scripture, from Moses, Job, and the Book of Psalms, he asked her, “Have you read the Psalms or other books, my lady?” When she heard this, she smiled gently and said to the monk, “Believe me, my good man, I have not seen another man since I crossed the Jordan, except your own face today, nor have I seen any beast or any other animal since I saw this desert. So I have never learned to read, nor have I heard anyone chant psalms or read sacred texts. Yet the word of God which is living and powerful teaches man knowledge. This is the end of my story. But as I did when I first started my story, I shall now ask you once again to swear in the name of the incarnate Word of God that you will pray to the Lord for me, the prodigal woman.” When she completed her narration with these words, the monk rushed to make obeisance, crying aloud again in tears, “Blessed be God Who doth great and wondrous things, glorious things also and marvelous, of which there is no number. Blessed be God Who showed me all those wonders, which He grants to those who fear Him. For truly, Lord, Thou hast not failed them that diligently seek Thee.”

Cyril of Skythopolis

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